The Feast! Food, Faith, Family. Little Italy’s Feast of the Assumption

I’m stuffed.  And so very happy.  The Feast of the Assumption is my favorite food festival of the year.  It’s the marquee event of Cleveland’s Little Italy.  

the feast-madonna

It is a sacred event, commemorating Mary being taken up to heaven.  But you kind of feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven when you stroll down the street, taking in the delicious atmosphere and mouth watering food.

The Feast-Murray Hill

I count down the days until The Feast every year.  If I was smart, I’d fast in the time leading up to it.  Instead, I psych myself up like a competitive eater at Coney Island on the 4th of July.  In the end, since I can’t really pack away as much food as I’d like…I prefer to graze and share…graze and share.  That way I can sample, and experience, as much as possible.

The Feast-pizza and sausage

I always start at the “church lady” stands adjacent to Holy Rosary Church, the focal point of the four day event.  Italian sausage wrapped in a slice of pizza (as a bun) and topped with peppers and onions.  That I won’t share!

The Feast-natalies pizza

My girls opted for simple and classic slices of cheese pizza…which they ate in between turns on the carnival rides behind the church.

The Feast-ride with natalie

For a second course, I like to share a couple dozen steamed clams dunked in drawn butter.

The Feast-clams

Usually we sit outside on a patio, listening to Italian music sung by the same trio of crooners and button box player who appear on the corner of Murray Hill and Mayfield Road every year.

The Feast-italian singers

But this year…we were also treated to something special.  My brother’s fiance and her family invited us to her Great Aunt Sue’s home, just a stone’s throw from the church at the center of all the action.  She cooks for two weeks leading up to this event.  Friends and family chatted outside, sipping generous pours of the family’s famous home made wine.

The Feast-home made wine

The fun surprise of the evening was when the The Italian Band of Cleveland came to play a private set for the guests congregating in Aunt Sue’s driveway. (a testament to her own commitment to the neighborhood, and stature among those who call it home)

The Feast-Italian bandThe Feast-TubaThe Feast-Italian tuba

Full yet? Nope! Next it’s on to cavatelli and meatballs.  By this time, my eyes are usually bigger than my stomach.  But I can’t leave without diving into a bowl of this classic.  My girls didn’t argue.

The Feast-julias cavatelli

If the timing is right, in between courses (or during) you can catch a couple of tunes from folk singers on the street, dance to music from DJs, or tap your feet to live bands in tents behind some of the restaurants on the block.

For several of the restaurants in Little Italy, The Feast represents their year of profits.  And estimated 100,000 people attend.  They go all in for the event.  Beer tents are up, bands are blasting crowd-pleasing anthems, meatballs are served by the thousands, and pasta sauce is simmering in pots big enough to swim in.

The Feast-bocce

At the end of the street, you can hear the distinctive sound of bocce balls colliding and slamming in to the wood-framed courts at the Alta House.

Teams of four encased in clouds of cigar smoke and Old-World Italian accents.  Drink it in.

Couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition of a statue of “The Madonna”  sitting solemnly in front of a rock band setting up on a ledge there.

The Feast-madonna at Alta House

Time for dessert.  Did you think we were done?  This I never falter on.  The sweet finish to this incredible feast must always be the tiramisu at Presti’s Bakery.  Of course there is cannoli, cassata cake and lemon ice at various booths.  But for me, dessert begins and ends with the best tiramisu in the city.

The Feast-tiramisu

I always leave The Feast of the Assumption full, in both stomach and spirit.  It makes me proud to be an Italian American and a Clevelander.  Mangia!

Opening Night: Alley Cat Oyster Bar

It’s been a delicious and interesting journey observing a restaurant go from concept, to construction, to service.  Over the weekend I was invited to dine at the soft opening of Alley Cat, Chef Zack Bruell’s newest restaurant, and the first tenant to open in the revitalized Flat East Bank project on the banks of the Cuyahoga River.

        Alley-Cats-Happy-Hour Jen and Danielle at Alley Cat

I invited my parents, and a colleague, Danielle Serino, who likes Zack’s food even more than I do.  It was a picturesque night along the river, perfect for the open air dining room and a glass of wine on the deck while we waited for our table.Alley-Cats-Bar3Alley-Cats-Bar2

I took it all in, amazed that just ten days prior, on was on a hard hat tour…and this was what the bar looked like then:


The dining room was buzzing with clients, vendors, friends and foodies.  And the vibe was as cool as the display of oysters at the bar.


As is expected on the very first night of service, we sat down nearly an hour after our reservation.  But I could see the kitchen was slammed.  “I’m ready to get my ass kicked,” Bruell told me over the phone earlier that day.  His open kitchens are part of the experience at this, his eighth restaurant.


Bruell was using the evening to begin to iron out the execution of the menu, and the logistics of the whole place.  Guests were invited to donate to the Marjorie & Ernest Bruell Cancer Fund (his parents) in exchange for pretty much anything they wanted on the menu.


We started with a round of appetizers, the Fried Calamari with Kimchi, which was very tender, as was the Steamed Middle Neck Clams.  But the favorite by far were the Alley Cat Stuffed Oysters (with watercress, chicharrone, fontina and breadcrumbs)


They were also serving a limited variety of their fresh, raw oysters.  So mom tried one of each.  (Pemaquid, Chincoteague and East Beach Blonde) She liked them all but didn’t have the experienced palate to really tell the difference.


For an entree, I went adventurous and tried the Grilled Octopus with smoked paprika aioli and succotash.


Dad (like me) is a sucker for lobster, so he selected the Lobster Roll, butter poached with green goddess dressing.  Creamy and sweet!


My mom can never resist scallops when they’re on the menu.  And Zack does them better than anybody in town.  These were off the Catch of the Day section of the menu and were served with lemon grass cream.


And the menu item I can’t resist at any restaurant: HUSH PUPPIES!  I could make a meal of them.  These were fantastic.


I rarely order dessert when I’m out for dinner, but tonight was about sampling the new menu and giving feedback to the kitchen.  So…we took one for the team and ordered three to split! Dad’s favorite was the chocolate caramel cake, Danielle preferred the banana cream pie, but my favorite, hands down, was the coconut cheese cake. (evident by the fact that I dove in and finished most of it before I remembered to snap a picture)


We were full and happy by the end of the meal, and excited for what’s to come in this space.

danielle and zack and jen

I congratulated the Chef on the way out, thanked him for a great meal and wished him luck working out the kinks.  He sighed and told me that a line cook already walked out on the job on night one.  It’s going to be a rough first couple of weeks.  Stay tuned, and hungry!